I know it’s the season, but the moral indignation mob are getting really scary

Opinion: It is neither possible nor desirable to eradicate bad taste or causing offence

Halloween is a time for mischief and transgression.  Young vampires pose for a photograph before the Shocktober Fest in Crawley, West Sussex. Photograph: Getty Images

Halloween is a time for mischief and transgression. Young vampires pose for a photograph before the Shocktober Fest in Crawley, West Sussex. Photograph: Getty Images


Well, that’s my plan for the Halloween outfit wrecked. Amazon has announced that its Jimmy Savile zombie costume – a lurid blue shell-suit, pink glasses, chunky medallion, outsize fake cigar and, naturally, a bottle of blood – has been withdrawn. An email advertising the get-up was reportedly met with a “deluge” of complaints and the online retailer – as is customary in such cases – was quick to capitulate. Fortunately for those of us left searching for fancy-dress ideas, Amazon will still supply a zombie Osama bin Laden mask, with partially dislodged eyeball and bleeding teeth.

People, it seems, can no longer be offended. It was the same when supermarkets Tesco and Asda showcased their own range of Halloween costumes: a Guantánamo-style jumpsuit emblazoned with the words “Psycho Ward” in the case of Tesco, a blood-splattered straitjacket and plastic machete from Asda. Hundreds of customers objected, many threatening a boycott. Mental health campaigners spoke out strongly, arguing that such outfits “fuel stigma”, and it all ended – inevitably – with the two supermarkets dropping the merchandise, proffering apologies and making out fat cheques to charity.

A victory for compassion, decency and mutual respect? Evil, heartless big business forced to put people before profit? You must be joking.

Moral indignation
What is scarier than any gruesome costume is the intolerant, self-righteous, mob mentality that insisted the outfits must be withdrawn. It may sound absurd to talk about shoppers bullying multinational retailers, but that is exactly what is happening. If you can kick up enough emotionally overheated moral indignation (and let’s face it, there will always be plenty of would-be allies on social media, permanently primed to feel sickened – even “totally sickened”), it seems that supermarkets, mindful of their profits, will cave in.

Taking offence is something we can all enjoy. Indeed it can be addictive. You never felt so good as when you were riding that massive wave of outrage, and the thrill when your enemies, the target of all that delicious anger, roll over – well, it’s simply unbeatable. Grand Theft Auto 5 has nothing on it.

Don’t tell me that any of this makes any difference, one way or another, to someone struggling with the challenges of mental illness, or to someone who has suffered abuse.

I expect they have more important things to think about, and deal with, than whether someone wears a tasteless costume to a suburban Halloween party. Nor can I imagine they would take it personally. Don’t tell me, either, that the majority of those who made such a fuss over these outfits were motivated by real concern for vulnerable members of society.

This is not about underpinning rights or protecting delicate sensibilities. Rather it’s another example of one of our favourite modern occupations: shouting down and stamping out anything (or anyone) that does not comply with the norms of our caring, enlightened, engaged society. This isn’t empathy, it’s the exercise of power. And the end of that road is censorship.

Halloween has long been a night of mischief and transgression, when traditional roles and codes are gleefully cast aside and a mild anarchy rules. It’s a way of safely engaging with the darker side of human nature, of experiencing that shiver of primitive dread we so rarely feel in our strip-lit 24/7 lives. By that logic, it’s perfectly admissible to dress up as Jimmy Savile without anyone assuming you’re endorsing what he did – any more than wearing a Col Gadafy mask signifies approval of war crimes.

The right to be rude
There has to be space in our lives for the tasteless and the tacky, for being rude and subversive and provocative, even at the risk of causing offence. (Within limits, of course: there can be no place for outright abuse or incitement to hatred.) It’s one of the ways we know we’re still alive, still free to say what we think, not politically correct conformists mouthing cosy platitudes.

The alternative – to join the joyless gang of living dead who patrol society’s boundaries searching for indictable transgressions – is too depressing to contemplate. Those are the real zombies, and if you don’t want to become one you should run for your life.

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